From Here to Obscurity: Pulgasari (1985)
Reviewed by The Foywonder
PLEASE NOTE: The movies reviewed in From Here to Obscurity have either never been given an official VHS or DVD release, have been released on VHS but are long out of print and very hard to find, or are readily available in some form but have generally gone unnoticed by most of the general public.
Starring a whole bunch of Koreans and a rubbersuited monster
Directed by Sang-ok Shin
Would you believe that Kim Jong-il, the “Great Leader” of North Korea, the guy who occasionally tries threatening the United States as well as pretty much every other nation state on the planet that he’s not pleased with on that particular day with nuclear annihilation, the same dictator who was savagely mocked as the villain in Team America: World Police, is so certifiably insane that he once had a director from another country kidnapped and held prisoner in North Korea for years in order to make a make a Marxist propaganda film in the guise of a giant monster movie?
Sang-ok Shin was one of South Korea’s top filmmakers and his wife was one of the country’s top actresses. Around 1978, for whatever reason, they fell out of favor with the South Korean government and were banned from making anymore movies, forcing them to seek work outside of South Korea. It was during a business trip to Hong Kong that the strange events that would lead to the making of Pulgasari began to unfold.
Shin's wife never came back from a business meeting. Soon after, Shin himself was jumped by someone that put a sack over his head containing a chemical that rendered him unconscious. When he awoke he discovered that he had been smuggled into North Korea and locked away in a prison camp with no explanation whatsoever as to what was going on or what had become of his wife. He remained in this camp for four years where he was forced to exist on a diet of rice, grass, and salt, all the while undergoing Marxist brainwashing.
His imprisonment was ended in 1983 with still no explanation as to why. He was cleaned up and immediately taken to a meeting with Kim Jong-Il; his father was then still ruler of the country. Here Shin was reunited with his wife, but instead of getting any kind of real explanation for their years of unlawful incarceration, the future ruler of North Korea just went off on a tangent about how terrible North Korean filmmakers were. Kim even pointed out a book he had written on how films should be made - I believe the title was “Writing Screenplays That Won’t Get You Executed” - and bemoaned how the directors in his country weren’t following his instructions properly. Kim wanted to base the entire North Korean filmmaking empire around Shin and his wife - an offer they really couldn’t refuse. The plus side for them was that they were paid in the millions and allowed to live in the lap of luxury in the otherwise impoverished nation. On the negative side, they were forbidden to leave North Korea, had to be careful of everything they did or said, and were forced to bow to the whims of their deranged captor.
Shin and his wife made several films for the North Korean government over a two-year period, all of which had to meet the future dictator’s standards and feature a healthy dose of pro-government politics. As it turns out, Kim Jong-il is a huge Godzilla fan and he desperately wanted North Korea to have its very own giant monster in the form of a spiky, armor plated, horn headed, Godzilla-like behemoth named Pulgasari.
Even though it would be loaded with Marxist ideals, Kim envisioned selling his very own giant monster movie to the whole world and kids everywhere would be playing with Pulgasari toys. He went so far as to even bring in many of the Toho special effects people to work on the film, including Godzilla suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma to step inside the Pulgasari costume. The movie boasted a cast of hundreds, maybe thousands, thanks to the soldiers in the North Korean army being used as extras. Word is that some of the other actors employed in the film were in very much the same situation as Shin and his wife. I’ve also read that Kim tried to make it difficult for the Toho people to get out of the country but never heard an actual confirmation of this.
Pulgasari was to be the cinematic spectacle that put North Korean filmmaking on the international map. Except... In 1985, before Kim Jong-il’s monster epic was nearly done and he allowed Shin and his wife were in his graces good enough that he allowed them to go on a business meeting to Vienna - under heavy guard, mind you. Regardless, with the aid of a Japanese film critic and a taxi chase to follow, the couple escaped to the American embassy and Shin would go on to direct 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up. Needless to say, Kim Jong-il was not pleased. I'm not too pleased about the 3 Ninjas sequel either.
A different director of the not being held hostage against his will variety would complete the movie. Yet Kim remained displeased and, as the story goes, Pulgasari never saw the light of day anywhere for well over a decade. There is no official confirmation that it was ever even released in North Korea. The only reason anyone outside of North Korea even got to see Pulgasari is because of one Japanese film critic that championed the movie in 1995. Somehow, he managed to secure a release for the flick in a single Japanese movie theater where it did surprisingly modest business, most likely due to Godzilla and Gamera movies seeing resurgence at the time and out of the sheer curiosity of seeing a North Korean giant monster movie.
After finding its way to video in Japan, the bootleggers swooped in guaranteeing fansubbed copies in the West. In early 2001, American anime distribution company ADV Films released an official subtitled copy of Pulgasari on VHS in the United States. The print run was small and the movie is now very much out of print, so good luck finding a copy. You’d probably have a better chance finding a bootlegged copy. The cover for the ADV release also boasted the phrase “BANNED FOR 10 YEARS” on the cover without bothering to explain why. Outside of daikaiju fandom, most people wouldn't even know this movie exists had some clips from Pulgasari appeared on "The Daily Show" back in 2005 when talking about Kim Jong-il "eccentricities".
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Pulgasari is that if you didn’t know it was made in 1985 you'd swear it was a movie that had been made in 1965. The monster suit and the miniatures look exactly as they did in the daikaiju movies of that era. Although the few scenes that employ the use of rear projection to show Pulgasari marching alongside the rebels is amongst the worst ever seen as it looks like live actors are being filmed in front of a drive-in movie screen showing Pulgasari in action. Pulgasari may very well have been some sort of technical advancement for North Korean cinema but for the rest of the world it looks like a dated imitation of genre that hit its highpoint two decades earlier. For Kim Jong-il to think he could mass market this film to the world is conclusive proof of his madness.
Though Godzilla is what they had in mind, Pulgasari really owes more to the Daimajin films: period film with a giant being that comes to life after someone's prayers bring it alive to defeat corrupt overlords oppressing downtrodden peasants. Set in 13th century Korea where a tyrannical governor has to contend with a band of peasant rebels that keep managing to thwart his soldiers using fighting tactics straight out of the Ewok playbook. The governor decrees that all iron is to be given to the army so they may fashion more weapons. By confiscating all the iron the already impoverished peasants will have no means by which to make tools necessary to farm or cook with, pushing them further to secretly support the rebels.
An elderly blacksmith who hid all of his ironworks tells the governor's goons that Pulgasari, an iron-eating monster of folklore, ate it all. They have him imprisoned where he's starved to death for his insolence. He'll forge a little figurine of Pulgasari out of rice before dying. The old blacksmith’s apprentice, a young man wearing entirely too much eye shadow, is also the rebel leader and just happens to be engaged to Ami, the blacksmith's daughter. They gain possession of his stuff after his death, including the figurine.
The first act of Pulgasari consists almost entirely of dull political intrigue between the governor and his toadies, oppressed people voicing their opposition, and an ungodly amount of crying. Susan Lucci hasn't unleashed this much waterworks in her entire career on "All My Children".
Ami accidentally pricks her finger while sewing, spilling a few droplets of blood on the figurine. It springs to life. As the thing begins munching on her sewing needles, Ami and her brother begin reacting to the awakening of this mini monstrosity with the kind of glee usually reserved for Pokemon’s Ash and Misty. They officially dub the creature Pika… Pulgasari. Duh.
You know how they say that iron is essential in a child’s growth? Turns out that saying is especially true in the case of Pulgasari; every iron rich meal causes him to grow in size. It'll quickly grow from Smurf size to something just big enough to star in a Charles Band production. The puppet-sized Pulgasari makes his presence known to the world when it crashes the execution of Ami’s fiancé and begins munching on the executioner’s sword in mid-swing. Chaos ensues, Ami, her brother, her fiancé, and Pulgasari head for the hills with the rebels, and the governor is in disbelief when told what happened.
Ami soon comes to realize that she has some sort of supernatural link to the now human sized Pulgasari, essentially making her an adult female Korean version of Kenny from the Gamera films. The rebels also come to believe that Pulgasari will help them defeat the governor and his forces, which Pulgasari gladly does at Ami’s bidding. In a scene of must-be-seen-to-be-believed goofiness, the human sized Pulgasari is shown amongst the rebel army charging into battle looking like a college football mascot leading his team onto the football field before a big game.
Everything I’ve ever read about Pulgasari claims that it features a lot of pro-Marxist propaganda - the tyrants representing capitalism and the peasants and Pulgasari representing socialism. I just didn’t see it myself. It struck me as the exact opposite. Think about it; you have oppressive militaristic tyrants that leave their subjects starving and living in squalor while they live in luxury and hoard the country’s resources to advance their personal war machine. Doesn't that sound more like North Korea's situation?
One major problem with this monster movie is that Pulgasari is more of a supporting character in its own film rather than the main focus. If there was less political intrigue, peasant uprisings, long-winded speeches by dying old men, women bursting into tears at the drop of a hat, and more giant monster kicking the ass of imperial forces then this would have been a much more enjoyable movie. As it is, there's a good deal of melodramatic dullness to wade through until you get to the monster-riffic action.
The film does finally pick up once Pulgasari achieves Godzilla proportions and leads the rebels into one victory after another. In between battles, Pulgasari helps out by gathering large quantities of wood for the rebels and enjoys lounging lazily next to a mountainside, looking almost like Al Bundy on his couch in the process.
When the General ordered by the Governor to crush the rebels finally figures out the link between Ami and the monster, he has Ami kidnapped and threatens to kill her unless Pulgasari agrees to step inside this gigantic iron cage they’ve seemingly constructed out of thin air that they'll then set on fire. This plan backfires on them, literally.
The General then oversees the development of a cannon that proves futile when Pulgasari catches many of the cannonballs in his mouth and fire them right back.
The attempts to defeat the giant monster even lead to the highly anachronistic use of missiles; rockets are fashioned to a series of large mounted spears and launched at Pulgasari. These scenes look like they came straight out of every Godzilla movie where the Japanese military tried in vain to stop an advancing Godzilla with a barrage of missiles. Just as with Godzilla, these primitive rockets have no effect, simply bouncing right off of him.
You know what they say, when all else fails try witchcraft. The general turns to a coven of Korean high priestesses that sing and dance their way to hexing Pulgasari. The plan being to put some sort of dark mojo on the monster so that it’ll walk into the giant pit they’ve dug in record in time. Believe it or not, this plan actually works. Pulgasari falls in and is covered under a rockslide.
The forces of evil do the dance of joy, but their celebration is short lived as Ami makes her way to Pulgasari’s unmarked grave, slices her arm, and drips some of her blood into a crevice. Pulgasari promptly erupts from the ground more pissed off than ever and lays waste to the forces of oppression once and for all.
Afterwards, the newly liberated peasants find themselves with an unexpected problem: Pulgasari still requires iron to eat and it looks like they’re going to end up once again at the mercy an overwhelming force demanding their iron.
In the end, Ami sacrifices herself to sever the link with the monster when Pulgasari makes a snack out of an iron bell unaware of the creamy Ami filling inside it. It’ll be his last supper. Don’t worry though; one of the tenets of Kim Jong-il’s screenwriting demands includes finding a way to keep things open for a sequel.
In the end, it's kind of hard to really rate Pulgasari because it's not all that good yet it most definitely carries with it a sense of morbid fascination, especially if you know the backstory. It’s still definitely worth seeking out although as more of a curiosity than anything else. The circumstances behind the film make it almost a must see for geo-political junkies as conclusive evidence of just how nuts the Great Leader of North Korea is and the giant monster aspect makes it worth a look for fans of the genre like myself.
In the ultimate bit of irony, Pulgasari actually spawned an imitator in the form a 1996 European-produced, American-made, shot in Romania, kiddy flick called Galgameth that recycled the same plotline only set in medieval Europe with less angst, a happier ending, and a young boy in place of the daughter. The plotlines are so similar that Shin Sang-ok is actually given story credit for the film. If nothing else, Kim Jong-il can at least brag that his movie is better than its knock-off. If you want to know why then let me tell you that Galgameth was written by the guy that also wrote Leprechaun 2, Chairman of the Board, and Candyman: Day of the Dead, and it was directed by the man responsible for 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain. Perhaps those two should be forced to read Kim Jong-il’s book on proper filmmaking?
2 1/2 out of 5